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Are corrupt companies like white collar tomb raiders?

I recently attended a program at which Special Agent Luigi Mondini spoke about the work of the FBI’s Art Crime Team. He said the United States is a net importer of stolen art.

That fact isn’t surprising because the art world is not regulated as stringently as many other industries. Taking into account, however, that a significant portion of the Islamic State’s financing stems from the sale of looted antiquities, the work of the Art Crime Team is now more important than ever.

A few particular points kept popping up during Special Agent Mondini’s presentation, and I kept thinking that there were significant parallels between the efforts of the Art Crime Team and the anti-corruption community.

First, considering how unregulated art transactions can be, Special Agent Mondini discussed the importance of art collectors’ performance of their own due diligence. He brought up the example of how even reputable auction houses sometimes unintentionally offer looted antiquities for sale. Private art collectors must be vigilant, and the same can be said for anyone involved in any aspect of international business.

Second, Special Agent Mondini noted that while the U.S. government always tries to put a price tag on the assets recovered by the Art Crime Team, the true value of the items can be incalculable. After all, a lot of the antiquities can more accurately be described as “priceless.” Analogizing to the world of anti-corruption — yes, we can impose huge fines on bad actors, but isn’t there more value to a corruption-free environment than just the settlement amount?

Third, the Art Crime Team typically focuses on ensuring the return of the cultural property to the rightful owners, rather than on any sort of punitive enforcement. Special Agent Mondini mentioned the goal of “keeping the cases out of the court system” several times. On its surface, this mentality is probably unique to the art world; frequently the culprits are already dead by the time long-lost items are rediscovered. (In other cases, it might not be worth pursuing a prosecution when the punishment could end up being nothing more than probation.)

With that industry-specific caveat, however, it’s worth noting that Special Agent Mondini did not seem at all perturbed by the fact that no one ended up behind bars. Instead, he seemed to take genuine pride in the preservation of culture that resulted from his work. Perhaps a similar view by those tasked with the rooting out of corruption would be beneficial.

Finally, with respect to cultural property, it’s much easier to dissociate reclamation efforts from politics. As a result, opportunities arise for nations to collaborate when they wouldn’t have done so otherwise. After all, everyone can feel indignant about the looting of antiquities. Shouldn’t that be the case with corruption as well?

The FCPA Blog has featured multiple posts on the culture of compliance, and often says that corruption is a cultural issue. Maybe we should start viewing a corruption-free environment as intangible cultural property, in which case we could learn a lot from the Art Crime Team.

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Ilya Zlatkin is a Chicago attorney focusing on business planning, intellectual property, and international entrepreneurship. He’s also a Certified Fraud Examiner. He can be contacted here.

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